Let’s Talk About Death

Crossing Europe Filmfestival, Linz, Austria, April 23 - 28 2012

  • Cemetery (Hauptfriedhof), dir. Melanie Jilg

    Death. As one of the constant themes in every form of art throughout the centuries, it is also one of the toughest ones to deal with, so it’s surprising that a fair number of documentaries from the competition of ours (documentary section for directors under the age of 33) have tried to do so. Some of them did alright, many of them – unsurprisingly – failed, and that was because most of directors have tried to cope with that harsh subject as if it is something extraordinary. Melanie Jilg, a young and very skilful director from Munich, treated her subject with the utmost respect, but presented it as something completely ordinary, which in fact it is. In her movie Cemetery (Hauptfriedhof, 2011) she showed us a cemetery, and all that goes with it – some trees, some people, some dialogue, some action and, much more important, mostly non-action.

    In his Notes on Cinematography, Robert Bresson wrote that only after the innovation of sound in movies, could audiences really notice the silence and the strength of the quietness. Jilg knows that in terms of life and death, nothing speaks as loudly as silence. Words are completely unnecessary with these kind of things, so the director’s approach is perhaps the only possible one. The final effect on a viewer is contemplative, almost meditative, and we are completely drawn into this static but nevertheless present world of the cemetery, of death itself.

    The director’s style mirrors its theme: very long shots, for example, in some sense emulating life as it is. This is especially valid for the final shot, which lasts over ten minutes and in which the camera takes us on slow-moving and drowsy but very spontaneous and unpredictable tour of the cemetery. Already after a couple of minutes, we realize that this ride is going on without any point or purpose, without any destination, but soon we let ourselves go and eventually even start to enjoy the ride – and does this not sound like an astoundingly exact delineation of life?

    In another sequence, we see a long hallway with some doors opened, and many more of them closed, which can mean many posed questions left unanswered. Life is a preposterous journey, a cliché which Jilg demonstrates in an original and very powerful way. She knows that death is inherent to life, and she’s not afraid to confront it in that way. Her direction is so polished on one level, but on another so primal, that it is understandable that the whole movie functions like this: Cemetery is quiet and unobtrusive, but actually a pretty daunting memento mori to all of us.

    However, the movie also has some weak points, and those are the moments when things start to become banal and even trivial i.e. with authentic dialogues etc. From one point of view, this makes sense, because all of our dialogues are trivial in comparison with universal concerns, but that isn’t Jilg’s starting point. She confidently sets her own rules in the first ten minutes, and then sometimes doesn’t obey them. We undoubtedly experienced an intelligent work from a gifted director, and if she will allow herself a little more resolution, we could soon have an important new name on the map of German cinema.

    Dean Kotiga, Croatia